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Until recently, no one would have thought seriously about doing word processing in a Web browser. Sure, you could write and do very basic editing in a big featureless text field, but the tools for working with text were primitive at best. As Google Docs capably demonstrates, those days are over. Docs both handles the basics and offers powerful collaboration features that make it easy to work on documents with other people.

Using Docs

If you use Microsoft Word, Docs will feel familiar. Docs supports several fonts; multiple text sizes and colors; bulleted and numbered lists; adjustable alignment and indentation; graphics; tables; links; and more. You can edit text by copying and pasting or by dragging and dropping, check spelling (in more than 30 languages), undo and redo multiple edits, and do most of the other things that you’d expect to do in a word processor.

Important features that you won’t find include headers and footers, footnotes, text frames, tables of contents, cross-references, and a powerful find-and-replace feature.

Importing and Exporting Depending on what you need to do, Docs’ lack of advanced text features might not be a problem. Its ability to work with Word, however, will likely be important. That’s where the program’s importing and exporting features come into play.

Docs lets you import Word documents (.doc), Rich Text files (.rtf), HTML files, plain-text files, and OpenDocument text files (.odt); each file can have a maximum size of 500K. To upload a file, go to the Docs & Spreadsheets home page and click on the Upload link. Then click on Browse, locate the file on your hard drive, and click on Open. (If the file is already accessible on a Web server, enter its URL instead.) Click on the Upload File button. (Complex formatting may be lost when you do this.)

You can also e-mail a file to your account. To do this, go to the Docs & Spreadsheets home page, click on the Upload link, and copy the special e-mail address shown there. Attach a supported file to a new message, and send the message to that address—the file will become a new Docs document. Alternatively, simply send an e-mail with text in its body to that address; the text will become the new document, and the message’s subject will become the file’s name. (The e-mail import feature tends to be flaky; your success may depend on which e-mail application and ISP you use, among other factors.)

Files you edit in Docs are stored online in your Google Apps storage space. The system saves your work periodically, as well as whenever you click on the Save button. You can also save files to your Mac in formats including Word, Rich Text, PDF, and HTML. This makes it easy to create a local backup copy or share a file with someone who needs to edit it in Word. You can also print your documents directly from Docs. However, Docs offers no control over document attributes such as margins, paper size, or page orientation.

Tracking Revisions When you’re repeatedly revising a document—especially if you’re working on a file with other people—it can be helpful to see what has changed from one version to the next, and who made the changes. Docs isn’t compatible with Word’s Track Changes feature. (If you import a Word document with tracked changes, all the text in the document—even text that was marked as deleted—shows up in Docs as regular text. Comments entered in Word don’t appear at all.) Instead, Docs takes a different approach. Every time your document is saved, manually or automatically, Docs stores a copy of that version. You can go back to any previous version and even compare two versions to see what the differences are. (This is similar to Word’s Compare Documents feature.)

To work with revisions, click on the Revisions tab. Select a previous version of the file by choosing it from the pop-up Revision menu. The selected version will appear in the window. To continue using this version, click on Revert To This One, and click on OK when the confirmation alert appears. (You can go back to any of the other revisions later.)

To find out what changed between one version and another, click on the Compare Two Revisions link and select the versions to compare from the two pop-up menus. Text added to or deleted from the newer version appears in a color that indicates who made the change (see “Keep Track of Changes”).

Collaborating Docs really shines when several people need to work on the same document. Without Docs, you might end up e-mailing files back and forth numerous times—risking garbled attachments and version conflicts. With Docs, you can all edit the same document together online, thus avoiding those problems.

To grant other people permission to view or edit any document, click on the Collaborate tab, select As Collaborators (to give editing access) or As Viewers (to give read-only access), and enter one or more e-mail addresses. Then click on Invite Collaborators, type a message (optional), and click on Send. Each collaborator will receive a message with that document’s URL. Although you can send these messages to any address, collaborators must have a Google account to log in and view or edit the document, and they must sign in using the address you sent the invitation to. The names of people viewing or editing the document appear at the bottom of the screen.

You can also publish your document so that even people without Google accounts can see it. Click on the Publish tab, click on Publish Document, and copy the URL. You can link to this URL from a Web site or e-mail it to anyone who needs to see the document.

Docs tips

For anyone familiar with Word, Docs will be mostly self-explanatory. Just click on the New Document link (or click on an existing document to open it) and start typing. But to get even more out of Docs, try these tips.

Save Frequently Even though Docs saves your work periodically, it doesn’t do so as often as Google Spreadsheets does. If your browser crashes or you inadvertently close the window at the wrong time, you could lose your work without warning.

Discover Hidden Options If you’re at a loss for how to perform an action, try right-clicking (or control-clicking) on the document’s text or on an element, such as a table or an image. A contextual menu will provide helpful commands (see “Uncover Hidden Commands”).

Publish to Your Blog Want to publish a document directly to your blog? Don’t miss the Post To Blog link on the Publish tab. Once you’ve entered your blog site settings, you can quickly get your thoughts online.

Search Your Files Use the Google search box at the top of your Docs & Spreadsheets page to search all your documents or the Web. Because it’s a Google search, you can use many standard Google features—such as quotation marks to enclose a phrase, or the minus sign (-) to exclude a word from results.

Use Keyboard Shortcuts Even though you’re working in a Web browser, Google provides some keyboard shortcuts for common tasks within both Docs and Spreadsheets. They use the control key instead of the 1 key. For instance, press control-S to save, control-Z to undo, and control-B to make text boldface. (Check the complete list of shortcuts.)

Is it for you?

Google Docs is great for collaborating with others on a simple document or accessing documents while you’re away from your usual computer—say, when you’re working in a computer lab. But to use Docs as your only word processor, you must always have a reliable high-speed Internet connection. If you need to work on Docs documents offline, you have to use Word, TextEdit, or another common word processor, which means exporting and then reimporting files.

Keep Track of Changes: When using Google Docs’ Revisions feature, you can compare any two versions of a document.Uncover Hidden Commands: Google Docs doesn’t have many menus, but it does have extensive support for contextual menus. Right-click (or control-click) on a text selection, an image, or a table cell, for example, and a selection of relevant commands appears.
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